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POP MUSIC : POP MUSIC REVIEW

A talent that's maturing nicely

Even as her marriage to Jay-Z has been revealed, Beyonce is still an independent, clear voice for women.

October 10, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

Beyonce is a married lady now, but she's still all caught up in the drama of love's first glances and final door slams. It's refreshing that she's staying in character: When artists such as Mary J. Blige start making music about how happy they are with their chubby hubbies, it might be sincere, but it also serves the function of feeding the tabloids. Beyonce and her Hova (spouse Jay-Z's nickname) always have kept business and pleasure separate, which imparts dignity to their relationship and lets her be an artist first, a personality second.

Beyonce's emotional reserve also allows for hits that still appeal to her core fan base of independent women. "Irreplaceable" was a masterpiece of that ilk, the finger-wagging summation of mercenary, "Sex and the City"-style post-feminism. That song made Beyonce pop's Chairwoman of the Board, as worldly wise and merciless about love as Sinatra was in the wee small hours of the morning.

Her new club banger, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" -- one of two new songs from her upcoming album "I Am . . ." that started to play on radio this week -- elaborates on "Irreplaceable's" theme of love as sport, if not war. Sounding a lot like a Destiny's Child song, it has Beyonce doing call-and-response with her backup singers over a rump-shaking beat provided by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart. More than most female singers, Beyonce understands the funky art of singing rhythmically, and this is a prime example.

The song's message is a tricky one: girlfriend's just split from her no-good man and is out celebrating with her crew. She's snaring a new man, but her old one is watching, and the song is directed to him. "If you like it then you should have put a ring on it," goes the singsong hook, and eventually the lyrics reveal that this is what the singer really wants: for her guy to make like a prince and grab her, delivering her to "a destiny, to infinity and beyond."

Moving on

That's corny, and Beyonce's not one for cheap sentiment. No matter what the bridge says, it's that chorus that wins the day, and it is a slap in the face of a man who's already blown it. Prince Charming is left standing there like the second lead in a romantic comedy, while Beyonce lets her new guy -- and the beat, and those jumping background singers -- sweep her off her feet.

"If I Were a Boy" mines a very different mood, and in doing so elevates Beyonce's game even higher. This is her Streisand moment -- a tender, fairly simple ballad that Beyonce uses to prove she's a great vocal actress. Co-written by fledgling SoCal rocker chick BC Jean and Toby Gad, who helped Fergie claim her song of the year with "Big Girls Don't Cry," this tear-jerker is circular in structure, its unending cadences suggesting that the problem B's addressing is eternal.

This isn't just another breakup song; it's an elegy for female empowerment, Beyonce's admission that no amount of money, fame or skill can solve the basic inequity between her man's heart and her own.

The lyrics start out with Beyonce musing about all she'd do if she could be anatomically and hormonally altered: eschew grooming, embrace booze, dog after every lady in sight. Cute, and at this point a smile underlies her delivery. But then she hits her upper register, and the sorry sneaks in: She's dreaming that if she were a boy, if a man could have a woman's sense of empathy, things would be different.

Both sides now

By the second verse, she sounds resigned, ticking off more cruelties that male empowerment allows. "I'd put myself first," she mutters. But she can't -- she returns to the chorus, and her imploring vision of life as (with?) a "better man."

Then the script flips. No more dreaming. Addressing her straying lover directly, she says it's just too late. Her tone is gentle, open: Instead of the snap of "Single Ladies" and "Irreplaceable," there's real sadness as she shuts this door.

The last verse is just slightly stagy, with a sneer sneaking in as she sings, "But you're just a boy." In the end, Beyonce can't resist arching her eyebrow; she's a survivor, and she won't let her pain completely unmake her.

But that's the final, poignant point of this excellent song. In Beyonce's world view, an independent woman must sacrifice the princess fantasy she was sold as a child and keep that steely edge, even when that world is melting around her. The compassion her vocal conveys as "If I Were a Boy" concludes is as much for the man who can't fulfill romance's impossible dream as it is for herself.

Post-feminist independence is usually staged as a comedy -- chick lit, "Sex and the City," "Irreplaceable." Here, Beyonce turns it into an adult drama and lets it bleed. It's a powerful and complex view of sexual politics from an artist who's truly come into her own.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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